“WARNING! DESIGN UNSTABLE! SYSTEM FAILURE!”
“No! Not again. Oh, you dirty…” Before he could finish his oath Greg Miles’ right arm and the last two hours of work collapsed and imploded with a silent, fluorescent flash. “It won’t work,” he moaned. “It just won’t work!” With a frustrated sigh he jabbed the Escape key on the hovering keyboard, sending the only reality in which he was happy into the ethereal void.
The real world fell back upon him and he felt its crippling weight again as he wearily peeled off the V/R Neural helmet and gloves. Dropping the floppy wad of plastic, wires, gold alloy contact discs and Velcro carelessly on the floor by his wheelchair, he closed his eyes against a mounting headache and inhaled slowly as he rubbed his temples. The faint, pungent odor of warm computer circuits tainted the air. It annoyed him tonight. The whole place with its high-tech decor and equipment annoyed him. His hand fell from the chair arm and came to rest on the cold steel hand ring of the wheel, completing his transition back into reality. Life annoyed him.
“Why did we ever sign that stinking contract?” He muttered as he had every night for the last two months. Because he was the only one in the office complex at that time of night, the question went unanswered which only fed his frustration. He gripped the hand ring, stopping the right wheel, and slowing pushed with his left to turn as he gloomily swept the dark, vast and lonely prison with his eyes.
Sighing again, he rolled over to the massive windows that made up the north wall of the Virtuatects office complex, leaned sideways against the glass and longingly gazed at the night life thirty stories below. Right then a rum and Coke sounded luscious. Old yearnings surfaced and he unconsciously licked his lips then immediately shuddered as memories of his drunken college days flashed through his mind, replacing his failed design. A car wreck and resulting pair of useless legs cured him of the hankerings… until now. He stared down. The crazy thought that maybe he should have died back there flitted across his thoughts and vanished again. This time he brought it back and pondered it. Things were on the verge of falling apart around his ears anyway and he didn’t know what to do. He had lost his legs and was about to lose the only thing that kept his focus off of cashing it all in- Virtuatects.
He leaned over further wanting to take in as much of the bright neon freedom as he could. The last time he ventured out into it his chair wouldn’t fit into where he wanted to go or people were either too annoyingly polite or too rude or too… It stunk. As he leaned, his aching forehead touched the cool glass. The coolness felt good and sent a shiver down his back. He moaned as it drained some of the pain from his overworked neural implants, relaxing him until his eyes closed. He sat motionless and let his mind drift back the four and a half months to the morning F. G. Hornlander walked into the office.
Hornlander had barged in through the huge etched glass doors and stood in the middle of the reception area for a long time surveying the place before he spoke. Without any introductions or normal get-acquainted talk, he came right to the point- an abruptness and lack of tact that still graveled Greg.
“I read about your new CAD technology. You claim it’s the answer to any architectural problem. Is that true?” he had challenged in his typical, caustic way.
“That is correct.” Greg had answered. The memory made him shudder again. Hornlander’s cigarette-burned voice echoed in his head.
“Good. I want you to build me a house.” It was more of an order than a request.
A house? Greg chuckled and winced as a sharp pain lanced from one temple to the other. Any chance of Hornlander’s monstrosity resembling a standard residence- two-car garage, family room, and barbeque- was so remote that it was not even in the same galaxy. This monument to the man’s arrogance was 140,000 square feet of pure Hell.
Hornlander, a multibillionaire genius who made his money and mark in plasma technology, figured that Virtuatects special brand of CAD work could accomplish equal feats in construction- feats that were structurally impossible to build, like a totally unsupported spiral stairway three stories high. He was a genius all right, but completely moronic when it came to hammers and nails.
Greg pushed away from the glass. The helmet and gloves glistened in the nightlights, taunting him to try again. He cursed himself for being smart- and greedy.
Greg and his roommate, now partner, Chet Watson, became hooked on Virtual Reality design while slaving away as architectural majors in college. One evening, after spending money they couldn’t afford on cheap wine and bad pizza, they lay around the dorm room watching the walls move and attempted verbal communication directed at V/R.
“Wouldn’ id be cool, Ched,” Greg slurred out, “ ‘f a guy k’walk through his ‘ouse in VR ‘fore it zever built… ‘n be able to ashly feel walls ‘n stuff?”
“Feel walls? How?” Chet had grunted.
“Dunno. Maybe full body suits or sumthin’. Sure would be cool.”
“You’re drunk, Miles. V/R’s fantasy. Can’t touch it.” Chet mumbled something else that Greg couldn’t understand, then belched, rolled over and fell asleep.
Too drunk to realize the magnitude of the idea or his current limitations, Greg staggered out of the dorm room, got in his car and went in search of an open tavern. He awoke a week later in St. Mary’s Hospital with his parents and a room full of medical people looking at him with very discomforting faces. His life as he had planned it suddenly ended. As he lay on his back all he had left to think about was killing himself- or the idea. He chose Option B.
Chet stuck with him more out of loyalty than good judgment but after five years of toil and battling they had a small business up and running based on V/R. Excitement grew but the processing time still killed them. It just took too long to run a complete house-design program that was marketable. The operating program, alone, was almost ten gigabytes. They found themselves looking at the possibility of hours of running time just to turn on the lights in a V/R room. Excitement slowly turned to despair.
Two longed-for breaks finally came when Silicon Valley announced some radical breakthroughs in DNA-based processor designs that danced in the rarified climate of speeds measured in tera-hertz and the Japanese revealed a timely breakthrough in running VR programs by direct neural stimulation through implants. Greg finally ‘felt’ his wall.
Virtuatects, Inc. was launched- short for Virtual Reality Architects. The following years made Greg and Chet extremely wealthy, extremely vein, and now, extremely worried. Even with their massive computing capabilities that could make anything seem real, the simple truth was Hornlander’s house was unbuildable. Certain elements like the spiral stairway could not physically be reproduced and every time Greg got to the top of the stairs in V/R the system’s fail-safe program would kick in and tell him that he was crazy again. And no matter how he tried to convince Hornlander of the impossibilities, the man wouldn’t back down. He wanted his stairway- and everything else. Hornlander had offered he and Chet millions to build his house and greed overrode their caution. They signed an ironclad contract and were now trapped.
Greg looked out over the rooftops and wondered about Hornlander’s intransigence. “It’s like he wants us to fail,” he muttered aloud. His neck hairs stirred and made him frown. Something felt wrong.
Suddenly the main doors thudded loudly against the walls, launching him out of his chair about three inches.
“Greg! You in here?”
Greg touched down, head pounding again, and rolled out front to find Chet backing his way through the glass doors dragging a huge box.
“Give me a hand here,” Chet grunted as he wheezed his way past the threshold. “Hold the door open.”
Greg eyed the massive posterior that waddled through the door pulling the rest of Chet and a large box with it. He looked past Chet’s bulk to the box. “What’s that?”
“Dunno, but it’s heavy. Hold the door, will ya?”
He grabbed the door while Chet grunted and puffed his way by. Once inside, Chet collapsed over the box and swore softly as he mopped his face with his shirttail.
Greg studied his bulbous partner and then the box. Chet was severely over weight but wasn’t a weakling. The box looked too small to weigh so much. Greg nudged it with his toe. It was solid as a brick wall. “Where’d it come from?”
“Plasmadyne,” Chet wheezed as he rolled upright. “It was right in front of the doors out in the stupid, dark hallway. I came down to see how you were doing and tripped over it. The frickin’ delivery people left it right in the way. Idiots.”
Greg looked out into the hallway. It wasn’t that dark. A slight breeze from the air conditioning wafted past Chat’s bourbon- scented face and told Greg why he had tripped. “You really ought to cut back, man.”
“Yes, mother,” Chet, snarled. He stood with a grunt and pulled the box over to a coffee table in front of a typical low and uncomfortable couch in the reception area. “Guess we’d better open it up and find out what it is.” Grunting enough for both of them, he hoisted the box up onto the coffee table sending a stack of neatly fanned magazines flapping to the floor. The table groaned in protest about the weight and threatened to collapse also. Chet straightened up and gave a theatrical moan of great suffering and dropped onto the couch and lay there wheezing again while Greg cut open the box.
Inside was a cleanly detailed stainless steel box thirty inches on a side. An odd rectangular frame that looked like it was fashioned out of two-inch square tubular gold was attached to the top. A massive, neatly bundled rope of heavily shielded cables ran from the box to the frame, giving the whole assembly a dangerous, high-voltage appearance.
After running his hands thoroughly over the box’s surface Greg located a small red depression in one upper corner and, after giving Chet a nervous glance, pushed it. One of the sides silently opened from the top and hinged down until it lay flat against the tabletop. Inside was a built in laptop computer. It automatically booted up and began to display a tutorial.
Greg let out a low whistle as Hornlander’s face appeared on the Screen. “This is for you to review and experiment with,” it said. “Call me when the demonstration is over.” The image blinked out and the next screen popped up asking for permission to proceed.
“Well, now. Looks like Horny’s sent us a present,” Greg said as he leaned back in his chair and wondered if he should do as the computer wished.
Chet became annoyed at the lack of action. “Well?” he groused. “Are you going to make it go?”
Greg gave him a sour look. “I don’t know. I was just wondering why Horny sent this over. I don’t trust him.”
Chet eyed the machine and frowned. “I don’t either, but do we have a choice?”
Greg shrugged. “No.” He reached down and touched the ‘proceed’ icon.
The screen flickered once then displayed in bright scarlet letters the words ‘initialing generator’.
“Generator?” Greg muttered as he watched the tutorial roll over the small screen as the machine ran through its start-up sequence. “What kind of generator?”
The gold frame tilted up with ghostly silence until it was vertical. As soon as it locked into position, a cool, shimmering iridescent quasi-liquid that looked like molten mother-of-pearl appeared at its bottom and flowed upward filling the frame. The moment the liquid reached the top, it turned a brilliant white and became as hard as concrete. After a few seconds the center seemed to melt and a small hole appeared which quickly became a tiny window complete with flower box.
“Balls! Would you look at that,” Chet said in awe.
The frame suddenly emptied, rotated until it was horizontal again and refilled with liquid. Soon, several tiny spiral stair-treads rose eerily from the soup and positioned themselves in the air, where they hovered rock solid- with no support.
Greg’s neck hairs were in full motion. “Stair-treads,” he breathed. “Stinking spiral stair-treads. Why?” He mentally reviewed the whole demonstration- the wall, the steps and their ghost-like quality of floating suspended in space- and ran headlong into his answer. “He wants us to hook this into our system and build his house with it!” A close look at the right side of the keyboard panel provided proof positive. “Look there, Chet. Computer interfaces. If he thinks…”
Chet cut him off. “Hold it, man. Calm down. You’re jumping to a lot of wild conclusions there.”
“Am I?” Retaliated Greg. “Wanna bet? Let’s see.” He rolled over to the reception desk, grabbed the telephone, whipped it around with a jerk, and jabbed the Dial button. “Dial Hornlander,” he ordered.
The phone chirped its acknowledgment and put the call through.
Chet gasped. “It’s after midnight. Horny is going to be…”
“Enjoy the show?” Hornlander’s abrupt, emotionless response to the call silenced Chet. It was immediately obvious that Hornlander had been waiting because he answered on the first ring.
“Uhh…Miles here, F.G.”
The tiny phone screen fluttered to life revealing Hornlander’s round, martini- red face. “Did you get it running?”
“Yes, we did. Fascinating, but what’s going on? What is that stuff and why is it here in our office?”
“Cold plasma. The perfect building material. It coagulates into any form the magnetic matrix dictates and will hold that form until the field is shut down. The system is controlled by a Megatech processor, basically the same as yours, so interfacing should be no great problem. I’m sending my techs over in the morning to begin integration.”
“Integration!” Greg bellowed, shooting a quick glance at Chet then back at Hornlander’s stony face. “Now just hold on a minute, F.G.,” he snapped. “Your people are not just going to waltz in here and…”
“You signed a contract, Miles,” Hornlander interrupted. “You signed a contract to build my house and you can’t perform.” His face remained unemotional and hard.
Greg found himself wanting to bury his fist in the screen.
Hornlander suddenly softened and smiled. “Actually, I’m doing you a favor. See you tomorrow.”
Greg thought he heard a cold chuckle just before the screen went dead. His jaw muscles flexed as he stared at the phone imagining Hornlander’s fat face still there. “That pompous clown,” he muttered with scalding emphasis. “If he thinks he’s going to come in here and start… Chet, are you listening to me?”
Chet was engrossed in the generator again and intently watched the fascinating display, totally entranced.
“Chet! Earth to Chet.”
Chet slowly pulled his eyes away from the small marvel and looked intently at his partner. “Greg, cool down and think about it for a minute. Remember back in school when we dreamed up Virtuatects- two drunks believing how our Idea would set the design world on its ear? And how you wanted to touch the walls?”
Pointing at the generator, Chet said with growing excitement, “Look at this.” He reached out and rapped the plasma with his knuckle. It pinged like ceramic tile. “This is the next step, man. This is where our technology comes full cycle, combined with Plasmadyne’s.” Chet’s face glossed over with a light-years away look as he stood and began to pace the room. “Think of it, Greg. Construction without nails- no beams, no bearing walls, no design constraints. Almost without instrumentalities.” He abruptly stopped and turned to face Greg. “Greg baby, this is the next evolutionary step for architecture. This is the future, our future.” He threw his arms open wide and yelled, “no limits!”
“Chet, the guy is nuts. I mean…”
“I know he’s nuts, but he’s also right. Don’t you see, Greg? He deliberately put that stinking spiral stairway in there to bug you because he knew how much trouble we’d be having. He also put it there to inspire you. Man, with our combined technologies we could control the entire architectural world and be rich beyond our wildest dreams. Balls!” Chet found himself giggling with almost uncontrolled glee as he contemplated the possibilities.
“Ya, right. Until the lights go out.” The jab went completely past Chet and Greg sighed. There was too much truth in what Chet said. “Anyway,” Greg continued, “we’ll know for sure in a few hours, won’t we?”
Chet grinned from ear to ear. “Indeed, we will.”
* * *
Six months later Hornlander fussed over his temple like a jealous priest. As he leisurely climbed the infamous spiral stairway, his hand caressed its seamless banister.
The outside edge of the stairs moved in an almost animal way as they conveyed Greg’s wheel chair up. He had to admit that it was really nice, but was still nervous. Lately Hornlander’s design program wasn’t working right. Odd stuff had started to show up, floating around in the program. Nothing that got in the way or messed up any of the designs, but there, none-the-less. But that wasn’t what bothered him right then. He looked over the railing to the main floor far below. The mag ring that generated the stairs was faintly visible beneath the translucent floor. Greg didn’t like the thought of trusting his life to that ring. “There is only one problem that still nags at me, F.G.,” he said as they reached the top. “Reliability. One spike or power fall-off and someone could get killed. This whole thing depends on magnetics and the magnetics depend on electricity.”
Hornlander turned and gave him a tolerant look. “Already handled. My engineers anticipated it and built in fail-safes.”
“Oh,” Greg said, but thought, sure. How many fail-safes? The thought amused him as the irony of how one set of fail-safes had nearly driven him insane a few months ago and now another was going to save him. The stairs lifted him to the last tread and oozed him out onto the third floor just behind Hornlander and Chet. He sighed and pushed off to catch up.
They moved leisurely down the twelve-foot wide hallway touching this, inspecting that. Hornlander stopped and pointed into a room with only three walls. “When is the rest of it going to be finished?”
Greg gave him a look of mistrust and said coolly, “within thirty days, if your people would stop screwing around with the programming.”
Hornlander faced him squarely. “What do you mean by that, Greg?”
“Something is going on in the VR field lately that wasn’t there in the beginning.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Every time I go in to work, weird shapes go floating by.”
Hornlander’s face took on a set, guarded look as he listened carefully.
Chet’s eyes grew large as he wondered what on earth Greg was talking about. Nothing was said about this at all. “What the heck are you talking about, Greg? What kind of weird stuff? I’ve never seen any weird stuff when I go in.”
Greg shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me, but I see strange stuff- Undulating, nondescript blobs of all sizes. They’re all the same color- kind of a sick yellow with brown striations running through them. They, more-or-less, float around with no real direction or purpose that I can determine. They haven’t effected the program- at least not so far- but they’re still there and I don’t like it.” He turned to Hornlander. “I asked that head man of yours, Jenkins, But he acted like I was nuts.”
“I see,” Hornlander responded with usual calmness. “Any serious problems?”
“No. Nothing that I can detect. The program seems to run normally, I just don’t like seeing things in my system that I didn’t put there.”
Hornlander turned easily and headed back toward the stairs. “I’ll try to find out if there is a problem on our end.”
“I wish you would,” Greg said caustically. Hornlander smiled and descended out of sight.
Greg didn’t like Hornlander’s nonchalant attitude. The fact that unknown entities were cycling around in his precious house program didn’t seem to bother him at all. Something was very wrong. He waited until Hornlander was out of earshot and turned to Chet. “Chet, my skin is crawling. Did you see how casually Horny took the news about those things in his program? Something really stinks here and the rotten smell is coming from him.”
Chet glared down at his partner. “Ya, well, he may have taken the news calmly but I’m not. Why didn’t you tell me about those things and at least give me a chance to be ready for when you told Horny? I thought we were in this together. You have any idea how stupid I felt finding out at the same time he did?”
The unfinished wall suddenly appeared, completing the room. Its emergence drew Chet’s eyes from Greg to its hypnotic shimmer as it solidified. The dance of lights had an odd effect on him and he calmed down immediately and seemed to take on Hornlander’s unworried nature. He looked back to Greg and smiled. “Lighten up, man. You’re too worried. I’m sure we’ll find out that it’s nothing more than a minor compatibility problem that’s easily fixed. Hornlander is just enjoying his house and doesn’t want to be bothered with little things like that.”
“Little!” Greg shouted. “How can you say ‘little’? You haven’t even seen them.”
Chet backed out into the hall and spread his arms wide, oblivious of Greg’s concern. “Just look at this place. Look at those vaulted ceilings. No support at all. This is architectural paradise. Don’t spoil it by riling up Hornlander.”
Chet was obviously caught up in Hornlander’s magic and Greg didn’t know how to reach him. He shook his head and kept quiet for the rest of the day.
That evening and every night for the next four weeks Greg turned his full attention to the blobs. He went back to working nights. He needed to have the entire system to himself and especially didn’t need Chet around. He had to prove to his wealth-crazed partner that they were in serious trouble- worse than ever. Something told him that the unexpected visitors to their private computer-driven world were anything but accidental additions. Somebody put them there for a very specific reason and he had to find out who and why before it was too late.
As he labored to find a way to locate the source of the blobs, he noticed that they began to separate into two distinct groups. The first group took on solid, geometric shapes and slowed in their erratic travels until they were almost motionless. It was the other group that worried him- fluid, pulsating shapes that flowed quickly through the field in threatening ways. Their pulsating increased noticeably and their movements became bolder as they moved near and circled around him. Greg couldn’t shake the feeling that it seemed as if they were stalking him.
During the fourth week, he relentlessly went after a new arrival- a small blob- and did everything he could think of to control it, to no avail. Finally, in frustration, he slammed his phantom hand down on the keyboard and yelled, “Respond, you slimeball!” The blob suddenly changed colors from its dirty yellow to a fiery red and shot straight at him. When it was close enough, it lashed out with a wicked, red, crackling tentacle and struck the keyboard, dissolving the right half of it. Greg recoiled in terror, slammed down the Escape key and jerked off the helmet. The abrupt disconnect caused his implants to go berserk and he fell from the wheelchair in searing pain still clutching the helmet.
After several minutes he gradually regained control of himself. Sweat was streaming from his forehead and his hands were shaking badly. He knelt, frozen, staring at the helmet, his breath coming in short, and quick bursts.
“What in the name of everything holy is in there?” He whispered. He set the helmet down on the floor slowly and gingerly pulled off the gloves as if any mishandling would bring one of the hellish beasts out into the real world. Sliding backwards on his stomach, he reached his desk and pulled his phone to the floor beside him. It clattered to the floor. He gathered it together and pulled it close to his face.
“Di…” He winced in pain. His throat was bone dry from heavy breathing. He coughed and tried again. “Dial Chet.” The order was gravelly and the phone responded with, “command unclear. Please repeat.”
“Dial Chet! NOW!” He yelled. He cringed, glanced at the helmet and realized what he was doing. “What is wrong with me?” He shook his head. The blobs would not come crawling out of the helmet to eat him.
The phone chirped the connection.
“Hhhhello?” Moaned a groggy voice.
“Chet, get down here now. We’ve got a major problem with the Hornlander program.”
“Greg? Greg! Man, It is 1:30 at night. What’s going on? What do you mean ‘problem’, anyway?”
“You know those shapes that I’ve been complaining about? One of them just tried to kill me. Now, get down here!”
Hornlander’s bedside phone rang. He rolled over and growled, “What!”
“Sorry to bother you, sir, but Miles just called his partner and told him to get to the office immediately. Apparently one of the program cells attacked him.”
Hornlander frowned. “I’ll handle it. Terminate. Dial Jenkins.” The phone obeyed and chirped as soon as the connection was made. “Jenkins, the architects have provoked a hunter and activated it prematurely. I want final configuring completed tonight and the whole system operational before the party tomorrow. Terminate.”
Jenkins didn’t have a chance to respond. Wealth had its privileges. Rolling over, Hornlander muttered, “Miles, you have dabbled too far, too fast. No matter.” He smiled smugly and closed his eyes.
“Holy mother of Moses, Greg, what are those things?” Chet was owl-eyed, too, as he gingerly set his own helmet down. “One of them took a swipe at me and vaporized my hand.” He glanced down at the real one just to make sure it was still there.
“Something Hornlander’s goons put into the system,” Greg said flatly, looking up from the control console.
Chet frowned. “You sure?”
“It has to be. No one else has access to the system but us and them.” He turned to the keyboard and began to rapidly type out new instructions. “What we need to do now is find out why.”
“Right now, I’m splicing back into Plasmadyne’s data feed and bleeding off the current stuff coming through. Then we’ll play with that and see where it leads.”
“Splicing back into their…?” Chet stopped in mid-thought to receive a revelation. ornland”You’ve been backing up their program on the sly, haven’t you?”
Greg half smiled. “Ever since Horny sent us the gizmo.”
The keyboard chattered more rapidly.
Chet became agitated. “You can’t do that arbitrarily. Hornlander is going to be furious when he finds out!”
“He won’t find out.”
“Oh ya? He put those things in the system without us knowing. You think he won’t?” Chet closed his eyes and moaned. “He’s going to bury us when he finds out. He probably already knows.” He opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling. “Why didn’t you tell me, man? That’s twice that you’ve withheld information from me.”
Greg stopped and faced Chet squarely. “I tried to tell you,” he snapped, “but you wouldn’t listen to me. Remember how you reacted that night when we first saw the generator and again last month at the house when I tried to tell you something was wrong? All you could see was the fabulous wealth we were going to swim in. I lost you to Hornlander and his splendor, Chet. I didn’t leave, you did. Now, are you back and will you listen for once?”
“But you didn’t tell me about the back up. It’s my system, too.”
“Would you have agreed to do it?”
Chet threw an embarrassed look at the floor. “No. Probably not. Sorry, man.” He sighed at his blindness, and then looked at his partner sitting in the wheelchair waiting for an answer. Handicaps come in many different forms. Right then Greg was more complete than himself. He sighed again and asked “So, what now?”
“Why don’t you brew up a half dozen pots of coffee. We’re going to need them.”
“Ya. I guess that’s about all I’m good for right now.”
“Oh, shut up.”
At 8:30 the next morning the phone’s insistent ringing drove Chet off the couch. He woke on impact, cushioned only by a huge pile of printouts and wadded up paper coffee cups. Crawling over to the nearest phone, he dragged the unit down to eye level and groaned, “Hello…I mean, Virtuatects.”
He stared at the face in the tiny screen, gasped and jammed the phone into his stomach. “It’s Hornlander,” he whispered loud enough to be heard on the floor above.
Hornlander shook his head and chuckled softly as he watched Chet’s rumpled shirt slide across the screen.
“So? Say hi and ask what he wants,” Greg said dryly.
Chet gave him a sour look and lifted the phone. “Hi. What’s up, F.G.?”
Greg rolled his eyes.
“Just wanted to let you know that I’m throwing a little party at the house this afternoon and I’d like you to come so I can introduce you to my guests,” Hornlander said with uncharacteristic cheeriness.
“Gee. I don’t know. We’re pretty busy right now.” Chet glanced at the helmet.
“Could mean a lot of business and definitely a step up into the upper echelon of large dollar projects,” Hornlander said in a sing-songy voice.
Chet suddenly realized how Hornlander had so skillfully manipulated him and was currently in the process of doing it again. Hate welled up in his stomach. “Hold on.” He shoved the phone back into his paunch. “F.G. is throwing a shindig at his place today at 1:00. Want to go?”
“Yes. Maybe we can corner him and get a couple of answers.”
Chet nodded and lifted the phone again. “We’ll be there.”
“Good. Look forward to seeing you.”
Chet terminated the call with his own skin crawling now. “I’ve been such an incredible fool. That guy is nuts. One minute he’s ready to eat you raw and the next, he’s your best friend. ‘Look forward to seeing you’. Ya, right.”
Greg nodded, glad to have his partner back, and added, “next time, and use the privacy button instead of cramming the phone into your gut. Horny must have loved the show.”
“You shut up. I was still half asleep.” Chet grumbled, grabbed the side of the desk and hauled himself to his feet with a sullen grunt and headed for the washroom.
Greg absently watched Chet disappear down the hall. He pondered how ironic it was that the very point in time when he was desperately trying to figure out how and why Hornlander had sneaked the blobs into the program was the same point that a surprise party should be held. Was it a coincidence? Greg felt that all too familiar tingle in his neck again. He grimaced. He was getting very tired of the constant feeling of doom that hovered around him. Sighing, he stretched and rolled off to join Chet.
* * *
The mansion was complete and shimmered like a fantasy palace in the afternoon sun. The huge exterior plasmic walls had a sheen that was a cross between abalone and virgin alpine snow. Hornlander’s guests walked in awe through the vast chambers taking in the unbelievable architecture.
Greg and Chet moved up the familiar pseudo-marble steps that dutifully adapted to accommodate the wheelchair, through the gaping front entry and into Hornlander’s lavish production. With all the finery and lauds, there was still a specter hovering over the occasion that made both of them cautious and wary of whom they talked to and what they said. As Hornlander had promised, more than one filthy rich guest approached them and expressed desires to have his own wonder- house built.
Under normal circumstances they would have been ecstatic, but something malignant was in their system and they needed to talk to the probable cause of it all immediately. So, when the introductions were finally accomplished and the necessary small talk used up, Greg seized the moment to pull Hornlander aside. “F. G., can we talk to you in private?”
Hornlander’s smile was unsettling. “Of course. I wanted to have a chat with you, too. Let’s go down to the study.”
He led the way to the warehouse- sized room and over to the alcove- a small doorless room to one side of the study. As he walked into the unfurnished space, the floor suddenly came alive, producing chairs, sofas and low tables. Greg immediately recognized some of them as the same non-threatening shapes that had kept him company in the VR field. Things were starting to make sense.
Hornlander saw Greg’s knowing look and headed off the imminent question. “Jenkins and some of my techs created a little sub-program to produce furniture in some of the rooms.”
“Interesting. How does it run? Through our system, I’ll bet,” Greg probed cautiously.
“Sort of. It’s more of a companion program that runs parallel and interacts with yours. Now,” Hornlander sighed, flopping back onto the sofa, “what’s on your minds?”
Greg sat tensely and fingered a nearby chair, a lime green Chippendale. It was surprisingly soft and warm. “I understand, now, about the furniture because I saw it in the field. I just wish that you were up front were us in the beginning and told us about Jenkins’ little companion programs.”
Hornlander’s face remained unchanged. It irritated Greg.
“But! I also wish you would have warned us about your other creations.”
This time, Hornlander reacted by frowning. “Other creations?”
Greg pressed harder. “Oh, come on, H.G. They showed up the same time as the furniture. They have to be from the same program. They have continually harassed me. They’re definitely hostile and I want to know why they are there.”
“Hostile?” Hornlander repeated icily.
“You’d better believe it,” Chet chimed in. “At first, they just floated around. Now, they move right in. If they get close enough, they lash out and disintegrate whatever part of you they hit.” He unconsciously rubbed his hand again.
Hornlander studied them briefly and then asked, “Any ideas?”
Greg suddenly became incensed with Hornlander’s perpetual evasiveness. “Any ideas? Why did you have Jenkins put your monsters into our system?” He snapped.
“My monsters?” Hornlander snapped back, fingering the top of the couch’s arm menacingly. “Where do you get off calling them my monsters? Maybe your lousy system has a glitch in it. Did you ever consider that?”
“Not a chance. Our system is not the cause. Only three people know the access codes- me, Chet and your clown, Jenkins. Now, we didn’t put that junk in, so…” He let the obvious speak for itself. “Why are your people running hostile programs in our system?”
Hornlander grew tired of the cat-and-mouse game and smiled. It was a cold, sadistic smile. “Money, gentlemen,” he said with the slow deliberateness of an executioner. “Money and power.” He studied his Hollywood manicure briefly and then shifted his attention back to them.
“What are you talking about?” Chet asked.
Hornlander rolled his eyes over to Chet and chuckled. “Chet, you of all people should have figured that out. You saw, as I did, the potential of our combined technologies from the beginning- unlimited money potential. Tch, tch. I had such high hopes for you.” He chuckled again and turned to Greg. “Jenkins is brighter than you think. You see, while you were so cleverly backing up my programs on your end, he was bleeding off your entire database into my system. He now knows how your system works and will run it from this end from now on.”
Chet shot to his feet. “Why you lousy, stinking, filthy scum!” He bellowed.
Hornlander made several quick finger stabs into the couch arm. The easy chair Chet had been sitting in suddenly lost its shape, rose up about him in a seething yellow mound and sucked him into its nothingness.
Greg gasped in horror and tried to flee just as the floor crawled rapidly up his legs. He heard Hornlander’s satanic laughter as the ooze closed over his head.
* * *
The sensation was radically different from standard VR. Greg realized in horror that he was physically in the field, not in the phantom way of normal VR, but really there, existing in the same iridescent color that covered Hornlander’s house. It felt like swimming in a boundless sea of living, semi-transparent syrup that swirled and oozed over him- feeling, touching, probing, dragging him along in its ebb and flow. It was nauseating. Somehow- he didn’t know how- he could breathe or, at least, remain alive, but it wasn’t enough. The wheelchair spiraled aimlessly by and slowly disappeared in the eternal glow. He started to panic and whirled around groping and struggling, trying to find something solid to anchor to. He didn’t have to wait long. Solidarity hit him hard from behind. He swam around to come face to face with Chet.
“Where are we?” Chet communicated in as odd, nonverbal way.
Greg saw his lips move, knew what he said, but didn’t really hear him. “I think, somehow, caught up in a combination of VR and plasma,” he answered.
Chet gasped and stared over Greg’s shoulder. “Look!”
Greg turned to see a detached hand float aimlessly by. There was a familiar class ring on it.
“That’s my hand!” Chet exclaimed. “That’s the hand that monster disintegrated last night!”
They looked more earnestly into the endless mist and could see parts of keyboard that had been recently vaporized; grisly stored in the field’s memory as part of the entire program. Suddenly, a red tentacle lashed out of the mist and pulled Chet’s extra hand back to the awaiting blob. The hand slid into the blob’s body and disappeared. The wheelchair could be momentarily seen inside the sickening red body, then it, too, vanished.
Chet yelped. “Did you see that? Man, we’ve got to get out of here!”
Greg’s mind reeled. “Where? How? I don’t even know where ‘here’ is?” Mortal fear welled inside him. He fought back the terror and tried to think. A piece of keyboard floated by. In desperation, he retrieved it and accidentally touched one of the remaining keys. The letter ‘M’ popped into view, floating above the keyboard.
Greg felt a flicker of hope. “Chet. Quick. Look around and try to find as many keyboard parts as you can.”
“What? You’re nuts, man. We’ve got to…”
“Chet! Shut up and do it!”
Chet didn’t back talk for once, but bent to the task. A few moments later he reappeared, lower half missing, with several chunks of keyboard clutched in what remained of his right arm. “I sure hope you know what you are doing,” he said anxiously. “There’s not much left of me.”
Greg looked him over and grimaced.
Chet pointed down. “Not much of you, either.”
Greg looked down and gasped. His legs from mid hip down were gone. He hadn’t felt them for years anyway, but to see them actually gone made him nauseous. He’d been so engrossed in getting the keyboard functional that he didn’t see his attacker. He nervously scanned the area for more blobs. Seeing none, he turned to the keyboard pieces and rapidly sorted through them until he found two congruent ones. Shooting a nervous glance at Chet, he held his breath and pushed them together. They immediately adhered. He grinned and quickly added more until a complete keyboard finally floated in the mist before him.
“Good,” he breathed. “Now let’s see if I can pull up anything.”
His fingers moved across the keys with agonizing slowness. His forehead muscles ached from frowning by the time the last keystroke was thrown. He held his breath and punched ‘Enter’. Nothing happened. “Come on,” he moaned. Suddenly, the small screen flared to full life and the diagnostic program danced in front of him. “Yes! The diagnostic. Now is that little piece of insurance still there, too?” He winked at Chet. “Jenkins may be a clever boy, but so am I.”
Chet opened his mouth to respond but Greg got there first.
“I created a little on-call virus just in case.” He turned to the keyboard. “Here goes.” The virus suddenly reared its evil little head on the screen and snapped to attention.
“Right on,” Chet said nervously. ” Hurry, man, work some magic.” Greg looked at him again. His stomach was gone.
Greg’s aching forehead was now covered with sweat as he struggled to recall the coordinates for the alcove. He pounded out the best numbers he could remember. A hole appeared in front of them, exposing the alcove, its malignant furniture and the outer study. He grabbed Chet and thrust him through the hole.
Chet hit the floor, full-bodied and happy. “Come on, Greg. Get out of there.”
“No. I need to do something first. Go find Hornlander’s location and get it to me fast.”
Chet opened his mouth to argue again, but caught on and bolted out the door.
Greg watched him leave instead of watching the field. A tentacle flew from the mist and his left arm disappeared.
Chet careened down the hall slamming into people and sending drinks flying. He flew into the main hall and saw Hornlander and Jenkins walking up the spiral stairs. Perfect, he thought. He ran back up the hall screaming, “The stairs, Greg! THE STAIRS!”
Hornlander stopped midway up. “Jenkins, did I just hear Chet’s voice?” Jenkins gave him a quizzical look.
A guest came striding up indignantly. “F.G., one of those architects you bragged about earlier just ran into my wife, knocked her down, and caused her to spill her drink all over her gown!”
“Impossible!” Hornlander bawled.
“Tell that to my wife!” The guest fired back.
Hornlander whipped around to head back down just as the stairs melted. Suddenly, he, Jenkins and the guest plummeted to the boiling floor and fell into its yellow swill.
The virus went malignant and pandemonium ensued as walls evaporated and frames cascaded down upon the screaming crowd with clattering vengeance.
Greg waited nervously while Chet stood at the hole screaming at him to get out. “Not yet. I need to make sure.”
“Of what, for Pete’s sake?”
“Of that,” he announced, jabbing his finger into the mist.
Chet peered inside and made out three shapes floating toward them. “Holy cow.”
“Miles!” Hornlander howled. “I’ll ruin you for this. Jenkins do someth…” Jenkins oozed by, headless.
“Looks like your genius is preoccupied, Horny,” Greg said with the same coldness Hornlander had salted his own words with earlier.
Greg reached out, grabbed the ashen-faced guest and shoved him through the hole. “No sense penalizing him. After all, his only crime is knowing you.” He looked back at Hornlander and saw, behind the man, the timely arrival of a large, red, pulsating shape moving quickly for the kill. He smiled and glared at Hornlander through narrowed eyes.
“So, what do you think of this cozy little place you had Jenkins fix up for us here? Nice, huh. Daylight basement, large front yard. Yep, real nice. I’d…uhh… introduce you to some of the neighbors,” he said pointing over Hornlander’s shoulder, “But I think you already know each other.”
Hornlander jerked around, saw the approaching demon, and whirled back around screaming, “Miles, get me out of here! I’ll pay you anything!”
Greg was already outside with Chet holding him up. “Have a nice life,” he sneered as he reached back in and hit the Escape key.